I Rossetti e l’Italia – The Rossettis and Italy
[International Conference, Vasto, 10th – 12th December 2009]
Review by Mirko Menna
(translated from the Italian by Elisa Bizzotto)
The Rossetti European Center’s highlight for the year 2009 was a three-day conference devoted to the relationship between the Rossetti family and Italy. The Center, located in Vasto at “Casa Rossetti”, where Gabriele was born and the cultural roots of his famous children reside, is directed by its founder Gianni Oliva, Full Professor of Italian Literature at “G. D’Annunzio” University of Chieti-Pescara. 2009 was a year of intense and fruitful activity for the Center, thanks to the creation of a Digital Library where the Rossettis’ books are housed and published (www.centrorossetti.eu) and the establishment of Italian Language and Culture Courses for foreigners in collaboration with the Universities of Yale, Birmingham, Caen-Basse Normandie and Ole Miss. The Center aims at drawing academic attention to the Rossettis’ microcosm, developed at a time in which Italian culture was influential and authoritative in Europe.
Hence the idea of delving into the osmotic cultural exchanges between Italy and Great Britain, Gabriele’s land of emigration and election which gave its ripest fruits in the creative geniuses of Dante Gabriel and Christina, as well as in William Michael’s contextual contributions. It seems therefore appropriate to begin an account of the Conference with In Nome del Padre (“In the name of the father”), the title of the first session in the opening day, and follow the textual path traced by Michael Caesar (University of Birmingham), who investigated Gabriele’s juvenile production (1820-21) as improvvisatore. This label accompanied him on his arrival in London, where his collection Sognar libertà (“Dreaming freedom”) became a poetic and political manifesto. After escaping from Naples to Malta, Rossetti’s last journey towards freedom coincided with a period of sacrifice and reconstruction at a professional and personal level. The years 1826-1831 became crucial, as Tobia Toscano (University of Naples Federico II) explained: “Divided between the care of his family, with four children born two years from each other, the difficulties of private teaching and the feverish work at the exegetic system of Dante’s Comedy, those years of hardships were even harder for the publishing failure of the two volumes of the Comento analitico all’Inferno (“Analytical comment to the Inferno”) and exacerbated by Antonio Panizzi’s and John J. Blunt’s unkind reviews, which demolished Rossetti’s clever exegesis. If one adds to this his disappointment for being passed over as Professor of Italian at University College (1828) and the definitive death of any hope to return to Naples (once again for an ode which celebrated the 1831 Riots), Giuseppe Verdi’s famous definition “jail years” seems appropriate to him too”.
William Spaggiari (University of Milan) concentrated on Gabriele Rossetti’s poetic apprenticeship and on his tribute to Giuseppe Bonaparte in the volume Poesie varie (“Miscellaneous poems”, 1806). Spaggiari considered the stylistic and formal aspects of Rossetti’s celebrative lyrics, rich in original solutions partly abandoned in maturity. Spaggiari highlighted the collection’s publishing history and fortune, as well as the presence of tradition and the influence of models like Metastasio and Monti. He underlined how “far from being a simple exercise of consensus literature, Poesie varie represents a canzoniere not devoid of compactness, in which the exaltation of the monarch is associated to heroic, mythological and historical themes (insisting on Columbus), within the frame of the deeper considerations of the patriotic and religious verse of his English period”.
The analysis of Raffaele Giglio (University of Naples “Federico II”) probed into Rossetti’s enigmatic interpretation in Comento all’Inferno. Giglio interpreted the allegories in the work as expressions of the secret language of the Ghibellini, Dante’s party. Reading the Comento contributes to “notice how, as time went by, Rossetti somewhat changed the interpretation of some allegories in order to give stability to a hermeneutic system that, however fascinating in its amphibology, could not always explain the images and characters created by Dante”. Silvia Fabrizio Costa (Université de Caen-Basse Normandie) investigated historical enigmas in her paper Eugène Aroux, profilo d’un plagiario? (“Eugène Aroux, profile of a plagiarist?”), centered on the author of Dante hérétique révolutionnaire et socialiste, subtitled Révélations d’un catholique sur le Moyen Âge (1853). While critic Pompeo Giannatonio thought that Aroux plagiarized Rossetti, Fabrizio Costa re-evaluated him “because after more than thirty years, when reading Giannantonio’s discoveries and considering Arnoux’s work, which had been completely forgotten among the minor writings on French Dante studies in the first half of the 19th century, one realizes that there are still cultural threads connecting Arnoux with modern exegetic traditions and that his work, either plagiarism or boundless admiration, must be seen as a necessary contribution to a typically French modality of approaching Dante”.
Vito Moretti (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti) considered Gabriele’s Rossetti’s poetry in “Per simboli e per visioni” (“Through Symbols and Visions”) in the light of Francesco De Sanctis’s criticism. De Sanctis envisaged in Dante ideological meanings that allowed him to create a model for the Risorgimento. Yet, unlike Rossetti, he seemed to leave out of his interpretation “fantastic and symbolic” aspects.
London became the battlefield for literary tenzoni among illustrious emigrants and exiles. According to Valeria Giannantonio (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti) the duel between Foscolo and Rossetti invites to “a meditation within Italian literature on a type of poetry sometimes considered from the perspective of its separation from the fatherland. A comparative analysis of Foscolo’s and Rossetti’s discourses reveals contrasts as well as affinities”. Marilena Pasquini (Liceo Scientifico “R. Mattioli” of Vasto) emphasized the socio-political elements in Gabriele’s Carteggi. Documents dating back to 1809 seem to prove that his adherence to Freemasonry while in Naples contributed to his development of the liberal ideals of the Risorgimento. They also contributed to his belief that “at the basis of the Commedia and of the principal works of Italian literature of the origins lay Masonic concepts and principles, the fruit of the millenary tradition of Western exotericism”. Luigi Murolo (Liceo Scientifico “R. Mattioli” of Vasto) concluded the session dedicated to the Padre by focusing on one of the most significant background figures in the Rossetti family, i.e. Gabriele’s maternal cousin Teodorico Pietrocola Rossetti (1825-1883). A follower of Mazzini, Pietrocola was sentenced to death for his involvement in the Neapolitan Riots and flew to London, where he befriended Lewis Carroll (and translated Alice in Wonderland into Italian). At the Rossettis’ he met Piero Guicciardini, who led him to embrace Evangelicalism. Back to Italy in order to “preach the Gospel”, he was among the founders of the Chiese dei Fratelli (“Churches of the Brethren”) from Piedmont to Tuscany, animated by the “Lord’s workmen”. In 1861 he published the first literary biography of Gabriele Rossetti spreading the latter’s fame in his home-country.
Franco Marucci (Università “Ca’ Foscari” – Venezia) opened the session on Dante Gabriel, Christina and the other Rossettis as Figli dell’Esilio (“Children of exile”). His paper on Dante Gabriel Rossetti traduttore e tradotto (“Dante Gabriel Rossetti translator and translated”) focused on the Dante Gabriel’s reception through the translations of his works in Italy from the turn of the 19th century to present days, but also through “the aesthetics and praxis of translation in Rossetti as a translator and anthologizer of Due and Trecento Italian poetry” whose “epigraph might be the saying translator-betrayer”.
Giuliana Pieri (Royal Holloway, University of London) concentrated on Dante Gabriel’s reception in fin-de-siècle Italian painters and signaled a “Rossetti mania in art criticism and in painting which encompassed the first decades of the 20th century”. From Word to Image and Image to Word, Dante Gabriel’s artistic expressiveness is a virtuous circle under a centripetal force that absorbs the stimuli of both English and Italian cultures and a centrifugal force spreading ideas by Italian critics of Pre-Raphaelite poetry in the two last decades of the 19th century, as explained by Mario Cimini (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti). “The slow, often superficial diffusion of the aesthetic principles of Pre-Raphaelitism in our country – Cimini maintained – corresponds, from a critical perspective, to an intermittent, segmentary history which does not lead to any authentic debate. And yet, if one analyzes the contributions of such careful readers of the poetry of D.G. Rossetti and some friends of his like Luigi Gamberale, Carlo Placci, Enrico Nencioni, Arturo Graf, Antonio Agresti, and Alfredo Galletti, the response is that of a reception centered on a progressive historicization of the movement”. Indelible “traces” – as Antonella Di Nallo (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti) called them – are left by Dante Gabriel and Pre-Raphaelitism on other aesthetic personalities. These traces undergo original and multifarious mutations, as happens in D’Annunzio’s two short theatrical pièces Dream of a Spring Morning and Dream of an Autumn Sunset. “A dense web of symmetries links the two plays and testifies to a merge of aestheticism and symbolism: the Botticellian linearism of the spring Dream and the Giorgionesque of the autumnal Dream, the dialectics sight-vision, the figuration of the female that passes from the virginal candor of the maiden to the perverse sexuality of the mature woman. Once again the analysis of the ‘grammar of the senses’ discloses new meanings in D’Annunzio texts”. Dante Gabriel’s prose writings – Carla Chiummo (University of Cassino) argued – influenced D’Annunzio as well as Pascoli. She explained how “The former’s characteristically precocious knowledge and assimilation of Rossettian motifs has been long assessed, but the short story Hand and Soul might be useful to ponder on D’Annunzio’s two-faced re-reading of Rossetti. The latter, whose Rossettian ascendancies have been much less investigated, shows an even more interesting and far from provincial knowledge of Pre-Raphaelitism. He cautiously fathoms Pre-Raphaelites depths not only in his theoretical writings, but also in his poetry, more markedly meta-literary”. According to Raffaella Antinucci (University Parthenope of Napoli) Rossetti’s Italian reception at the turn of the century culminates in Guido Gozzano’s poem “La preraffaellita” (“The Pre-Raphaelite Woman”) (1903) thanks to “the female characterization, in which Rossetti’s dualism between spiritual and sensual femininity is revived and merges in the oxymoronic profile of a woman ‘of lustful beauty’ who ‘flaunts religious pomp’”. Eleonora Sasso (Università “G. D’Annunzio” of Pescara) traced a growing interest for Giovanni Boccaccio and the figure of Fiammetta in D. G. Rossetti’s figurative art back in 1849, a crucial year in his evolution towards a carnal, Epicurean sensuality. The paintings Bocca baciata (1859), Fiammetta (1868) and A Vision of Fiammetta (1878), along with the translation of Boccaccio’s Rime into English, testify to the writer’s influence on Rossetti. Fabio Camilletti (Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry – University of Birmingham) linked Dante Gabriel’s notion of art as “cult of the mind” that evolves into solipsism to Gabriele’s exoteric, Pythagorean idea of “religion of the mind” he formulated for Beatrice di Dante. Camilletti observed how “The construction of a poetic subjectivity in Vita Nova is adopted by Rossetti to interpret the tensions of the Victorian “I” and is definitively concretized in The House of Life. An authentic Vita Nova for the Victorian age, the 1881 sonnet sequence re-elaborates and metamorphoses the Dantesque element of the ‘book of memory’, becoming a spiritual autobiography, fragmentary and ambiguous”.
According to Francesco Marroni (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Pescara) Christina Rossetti conflates “two poetic traditions which undergo a radical revision, having in mind an artistic program positing at its centre the discussion of Victorian poetry in both themes and linguistic and prosodic codes”. Marroni conducted a profound analysis around the “peculiarity of Christina’s double cultural matrix, around the exceptionality of the ambience in which she lived, the almost obsessive elaboration of rhythms and new musicality that principally drew inspiration from Italian poetic tradition which, starting from Dante and Petrarch, characterized the crucial stages of her poetics. Christina, however, found her main models in Tasso and Metastasio who, more than other Italian authors, influenced her poetic writing at different levels”. Christina grew up in a family with deep genealogic and cultural connections with Italy. Her household, and particularly her relationship with her father, are important to understand the vision of Italy she developed through the years: moving from a statement such as “I am glad of my Italian blood”.
Mariaconcetta Costantini (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Pescara) re-read Christina’s lyrics and letters which suggest “an idealized attitude towards Italy, the land as so longed as to become a rhetorical figure condensing manifold, even contradictory meanings”. The idea of vagheggiare – in its semiotic values – taken from one of letters to her brother William Michael (“Are you still vagheggiando Vasto?”) was at the centre of Mirko Menna’s (University “G. D’Annunzio” of Chieti) investigation of the reasons why the Rossetti children never visited their father’s hometown, Vasto. The journey was, however, experienced not only in memories and mythologizing of poetic words but also in the more banal, simpler idiom connected to the Rossettis’ familiar lexis through sayings, proverbs, pranks and calembours. Puns and wordplay thrive in Goblin Market, translated by Sara Elena Rossetti and Fabio Monticelli for the edition published by S. Marco dei Giustiniani (Genoa, 2009). “Attracted, seduced and definitely conquered” – that is how the authors declared to have been by a text aiming at reconstructing, not without difficulty, the “fascinating innocence” of the poem.
The last day was devoted to the Rossettis’ other voices, wrongfully considered minor. Paola Spinozzi (University of Ferrara) focused on William Michael Rossetti’s art criticism. Among the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, William Michael was also editor of The Germ, historian of Pre-Raphaelitism, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s biographer, custodian of family memories and prolific essay-writer. Moreover – as Spinozzi interestingly showed – he was a great art historian who divulged Italian art history in his country. Paolo De Ventura (University of Birmingham) delivered a stimulating paper on the interpretations of A Shadow of Dante by Francesca Maria Rossetti, Gabriele’s first daughter scarcely known hitherto. “It is essentially a ‘family book’ ” – De Ventura underlined – “whose very title calls to mind the most famous poems by the author’s father, who is also the dedicatee, while the frontispiece and cover were designed by Dante Gabriel, with extracts from Dante’s Inferno translated by William Michael. This did not prevent Maria from being among the very first women to engage in Dantesque criticism with the first example of ‘Companion to Dante Studies’ and from taking original stances. She not only refused her father’s mystical and allegorical interpretation, but also Dante Gabriel’s translation of the Vita Nuova. She viewed Dante as the archetype of poetry, originally studied the chronology of the journey and claimed that Beatrice as well as the donna gentile might stand for biographical experiences”.
The debate that followed, much animated and stimulating, focused on the issues inspired by the papers. The Conference Proceedings, now in course of publication, will pair the Proceedings of the 1982 Conference I Rossetti tra Italia e Inghilterra (“The Rossettis between Italy and England”), similarly held in Vasto under Gianni Oliva’s supervision. The two volumes will represent fundamental chapters in the historical re-evaluation of the Rossetti family.
- Mirko Menna received his MA in Italian Literature from the University of Chieti-Pescara “G. D’Annunzio”. He completed his doctoral studies in Language and Literature of the Italian Regions and was awarded a Postdoctoral fellowship from the University of Chieti. He is interested in Italian literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially Manzoni, Pascoli and Silone. He published Al candido fratello – Carteggio D’Annunzio-Annibale Tenneroni (Lanciano, Carabba, 2007) and Vite Vissute di Gabriele D’Annunzio (Lanciano, Carabba, 2009). He collaborates with several academic journals and with the Centro Europeo di Studi Rossettiani in Vasto (www.centrorossetti.eu).